I am writing this because when I was depressed and searched the internet for help, I was sorely disappointed. I found platitudes, and self help nonsense that seemed like it was written by happy people for happy people to be happier. It didn’t feel like they actually helped or spoke to me in my mental state. As a person who once struggled with depression, and who now feels the gaping contrast between what I felt then and what I feel now, I want to share what worked for me in getting me this far. These ideas probably won’t be helpful for everyone, but I hope that it can help someone, or at least lead someone to the right path.
There was a time in my life when I struggled with depression. I took medication, I went to a therapist, and neither particularly helped me. I was lucky to have enough sense of self to realize it, quit both, and try my own way. Eventually, after several years and many setbacks, I was able to recover on my own. I am now a very happy, positive, and very emotionally stable person. During my recovery my parents would ask me that when I found the secret to happiness, to share it with them. I don’t claim to know the secret to happiness, but I can share some realizations that I made along the way that worked for me.
Happiness is an outlook, not an event. I used to think happiness was something that would just happen to me. I would wonder why I wasn’t happy, why happiness did not come to me when good things in my life happened. I wondered why happiness never happened to me, why I didn’t wake up in the morning, fresh and happy. It took me a long time to realize that happiness is not something external that will come from somewhere and wash over me. It is not caused by good things happening. Happiness is in outlook. It comes from within, and allows me to view the world differently. It is something I have to cultivate within myself.
Start small. At times I found myself so depressed the simple act of making a bowl of cereal or getting out of bed would be too hard, and I would find myself sobbing on the floor next to my bed or in my kitchen. I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to withstand any real emotional turmoil for a very long time if even getting out of bed made me unhappy. I recognized my limits. So I started small. Whenever I WAS able to get out of bed or successfully make a bowl of cereal without breaking down, I would congratulate myself. I would tell myself well done and recognize the accomplishment I had made. Because for me, it was an accomplishment – it was something I could be proud of. It felt really stupid at first, but eventually I actually started to feel proud of all my little accomplishments. Good job going through that entire shower without crying. Good job making it to the second floor of the house today. Of course I wasn’t always able to do these things, but when I could I congratulated myself. And eventually they got more frequent, and as I got better the things became bigger and more emotionally impactful. Good job talking to that person who makes you feel like crap without breaking down today. Good job not getting depressed when your boyfriend just left for two months. I can now overcome huge obstacles, and I am even more proud knowing how far I have come.
Understand that happiness is the result of lots of emotional exercise. It took me a long time to realize this, because happiness seemed so effortless to some people. Eventually I realized that it seemed effortless to them because they had a lot of emotional strength, from lots of emotional exercise. They were able to easily lift heavy emotional burdens that just hopelessly weighed me down and crushed me. Once I realized this, I came to other helpful conclusions.
Happiness is a struggle for everyone, you are not alone. Those people who seem effortlessly happy, they practice and exercise their positive outlook all the time. I realized that happiness is not some plateau that once you reach it you are done with the quest. You have to work at it constantly. Happiness, even for those people, is a constant battle, a constant struggle. They are just better equipped and have had a lot more experience with the struggle, so their struggle seemed so much smaller than mine. And even those people can break down from the struggle, if they are tired or have too many emotional weights bearing them down. Even now, in an emotional state I consider particularly happy, I sometimes get pangs of random sadness. But I currently have the strength to fend them off and overcome. So just remember, everyone struggles to be happy. Just to varying degrees.
Right now is the hardest it will ever be. Just like physical exercise, emotional exercise is really difficult to start, especially if you are out of shape. The further down the depression rabbit-hole you are, the more out of shape you are emotionally. But once I understood that happiness is an exercise, I could start to work towards it. When I first started to try and get better that was the hardest it ever was. It was very slow and there were lots of setbacks, but I kept trying and it truly only got better from there.
You can’t expect to be happy overnight. Like with physical exercise, you will not see change overnight. It took me several years of training to get to where I am today. It takes time, and you have to be patient and let the process take that time. In physical exercise, if you try to push yourself too far too fast you can seriously injure yourself. The same is true of emotional exercise. If you push yourself and expect results right away you can end up doing more harm to your emotional state than good. Trust that eventually you will start to get better.
There are going to be lots of setbacks. Like with any exercise routine, diet, or habit you try to build, as you work towards emotional strength there are going to be lapses. There will be times you feel like you have made no progress or that you have slipped back to where you began through some single mistake. There will be burdens that you break under. But don’t worry, as long as you continue to try, you will get there eventually. And if you feel bad about having lapsed, just remember to forgive yourself.
Forgive yourself for being unhappy. I noticed that something I would do often when I was in a very bad mental state was lament the discrepancy between how bad I felt and how happy I thought I should be. I would feel bad about feeling bad. I would think, oh I have all this great stuff going right in my life, and there isn’t even anything sad happening, so I shouldn’t be unhappy. And then the fact that I wasn’t happy when I should be would make me more sad. This also happened a lot with friends. I knew my sadness made my friends unhappy, and I would feel bad for being sad and bringing their moods down with me. But that is a cyclical way of thinking, and it is unhelpful and unproductive. Sadness and depression are valid emotions. You are allowed to feel them. And you are allowed to forgive yourself for being unhappy. Of course it is better to try and be happy, but try not to beat yourself up about it when you are unhappy. Forgive yourself for your emotions.
Happiness Begets Happiness. Sadness Begets Sadness. It is a circle of emotion. I found that when I was sad, it was so easy to remain sad. When I was unhappy, everything else made me unhappy. I would get into this circle of unhappiness where I would be sad so things would make me sad, and then I was more sad and things would make me more sad. It was a cycle. It is extremely difficult to stop the cycle. Especially when you are extremely depressed. It’s like a wheel rolling down a hill, the longer it rolls, the faster it goes and the harder it is to stop. But the first step to stopping the wheel, the cycle, is to recognize it turning. If you just notice, and redirect your thoughts, you can learn to slow it little by little until it turns the other way. And if you notice yourself having happy thoughts, take advantage. Try to make them last as long as possible. Expand on them. I would notice myself looking out the window sometimes and being emotionally affected by how beautiful it was outside. Even though I knew that as soon as I stopped thinking about it I would be sad again, I would admire it for as long as possible. I would try to extend those happy thoughts and try to slow, eventually reverse, the cycle.
Just Think of Something Else. Another platitude I hated, as if it were that easy. But another one that is surprisingly true. When I was sad, a lot of what I thought about was how sad I was, or how sad the state of the world was, or how sad and useless life in general was. These are obviously sad thoughts. The more I thought them, the sadder I would get, and the longer I would be sad. Yes it is difficult, but seriously, just try to think about anything else. It doesn’t even have to be something that makes you happy. I was most vulnerable to depression as I fell asleep at night. To counter this, I would imagine annoyingly cute glittering unicorns jumping over rainbows as I fell asleep. I would focus on those obnoxious unicorns, how glittery they were, how their manes flowed, what order the colors went in the rainbow. Whenever I noticed that my thoughts had drifted, no matter how long (sometimes it was a long time before I noticed), I would force them back to unicorns and rainbows. It sounds weird, but it did help me from thinking of sad things. The less I thought of sad things, the less sad I was. It also helped me to reprogram my brain so that it was eventually easier to recognize when I was thinking ‘sad-ly’ and made it easier to divert my thoughts to anything else. This is why meditation too can be so important to emotional health. Meditation is a way to accomplish the same thing, a way of guiding and molding your thoughts. If you can always be mindful of when you’re getting caught in a negative thought spiral, then it will become easier and easier to release yourself from that spiral.
You control your thoughts. I used to feel so helpless in the face of all my emotions and thoughts. It felt like there was no escape from them, like they just came at me and there was nothing I could do. This is fundamentally untrue. YOU are NOT your thoughts. You HAVE thoughts. They exist in YOUR brain and you have control over them. It may not feel like it and it does take some emotional strength to wrangle your thoughts, but the more you practice, the more you can learn to control your thoughts. You can have the negative thoughts, and then just ignore them. Let them float away and think of whatever you want to think about.
If you can, try to act just a little happier than you feel. I’m not telling you to hide your emotions. You shouldn’t hide or be ashamed of what you are feeling, especially if people ask you directly. But if you can, try to smile as often as possible. In general, it has been proven that the more you act a certain way, the more you will actually feel that way as well. The more you smile, the more positivity inducing chemicals are produced in your brain. So if you find yourself acting more unhappy than is totally necessary (I remember I would sometimes act more unhappy than I actually felt in an attempt to be more obvious in my unhappiness and thus communicate it to others), or if you find you have the energy to maybe act just a little bit more happy than you actually feel, try to do so. It won’t help immensely, but every little bit counts.
How you see yourself impacts how you act. If you think of yourself as a sad person, you are more likely to act like a sad person. This is part of the reason why sometimes I would act more unhappy than I felt. I saw myself as a sad person, as part of who I fundamentally was. I had established all of my relationships as that person. I had become so used to interacting as that person. The problem is, if you see yourself as a sad person it is practically impossible to be a happy person. Changing the way you think of yourself, like the rest of these points, is a difficult endeavor. When I resolved to get better, instead of trying to immediately think of myself as a happy person, I began to think of myself as a person who was trying to get better. Even that was enough to help me start to overcome the previous vision I had of myself, and help me act like a happier person.
Your focus will become your reality. Your mind is your only lens for perceiving the world. The things that you think about and focus on will fill your mind, and influence the way that you see the world. What you think about will become your reality. Confirmation bias is also a factor here. If you believe something to be true, you will be more likely to notice evidence that proves you correct, and discount evidence that proves you wrong. It’s good to remember that when you are filled with negative emotions, you are probably only noticing the negativity in the world. And this is not the entire truth. There are likely several good and positive aspects that you are dismissing or discounting. I remember that I would often discount ‘happy’ events in my day as anomalies, or exceptions to the rule. And so my reality became that I would often have bad days. It is hard to break out of this mind set, and you can’t just simply feel something different. Altering the way you feel about things takes time. But if you understand that your focus makes you biased, then you can begin to notice your bias and try to see the other side of things.
Avoid things that make you unhappy. This seems obvious, but for some reason it was really hard for me in my depressed state to know what things were making me sad. I just didn’t….think about it. For example, my taste in music is rather melancholic, even more so when I am depressed. I would listen to unhappy music because I thought I felt commiserated, like by listening to this song, I could connect with all the other people who felt the same way I did. But the songs still made me sad. These unhappy things were transferring into my mood, not just as reactions, but as internalized feelings. I realized eventually to avoid unhappy tv and music, or at least proceed them with loooong breaks of happy music and tv.
Seek out things that make you happy. I remember when I was down that literally nothing made me happy. I didn’t want to play games, I didn’t want to read, I didn’t want to go outside. The only thing I thought I wanted to do was curl in a corner and cry. It is really hard to find things that make you happy when you are depressed. But again, start small. Happiness doesn’t just happen, you have to make it happen. One thing some of my friends have done when they are sad is ask people to post happy things on facebook for them. It’s brilliant. People will post silly memes, pictures of cute animals, beautiful photography. Just lots of little things that are pretty innocuous. Of course they are not going to instantly make you happy, but they help just a little bit. Try to do this. I had a stuffed animal from childhood that I would always hug when I was sad, and I would still cry, but I would feel just a tiny bit better because I had my stuffed animal.
Express your other positive traits and emotions. I’m not saying shout it from the rooftops, but you know, make at least a little deal about it. It helps. Since happiness can feel like such a distant goal, sometimes it can feel nice and easier to build on other positive emotions. They don’t even have to be happy emotions just positive ones, ones that you like or approve of, traits that you like in yourself and in others. For me, gratitude, love, and pride were all positive emotions that I could still feel even when I was unhappy. One thing I would do was tell people whenever I was proud of myself for accomplishing even the smallest goal. I would thank people whenever they had done something kind for me. Even try to figure out small ways that I could make it up to them. I also started making it a point to send my family cards for Holidays so that I could express my love for them throughout the year, even when I didn’t get to see them.
Since anxiety and depression often go hand in hand, I thought I would share some thoughts that helped me to overcome my anxiety as well.
Don’t mistake worrying for planning. One thing I found myself doing a lot was justifying my worried and anxious thoughts by thinking I was ‘planning’ and ‘preparing’ by thinking about them. The more important something was, and the more it worried me, the more I thought I needed to think about it so that I could ‘figure it out’. An important thing I realized was that a lot of the things I tried to ‘plan’ around, were things I really had no control over. I would go in circles trying to ‘plan’ because there were too many variables that I couldn’t account for. It was unproductive. There are things you can control, and things you can’t. You can write the best essay you can, but there is no reason to worry about your grade, because once you have turned the essay in, there is literally nothing more you can do. This is true of many things in life. Just do what you can, and don’t try to plan around the rest, because you will only cause yourself to needlessly worry.
Even if something is going to go wrong, having worried about it would not have prevented it. This was another important revelation I made that helped me to convince myself to worry less. A lot of the time I would worry that something unfortunate would happen. I could worry, for example, that when I get back from my vacation I will find that all our projects at work have fallen apart without me. This could very well be true, but I couldn’t do anything about it on my vacation. If I assume that it is true, if I worried about it during my vacation, that worry would prevent me from enjoying my time. But if I didn’t worry about it, I could have a great vacation, and simply deal with it when I got back. Worrying about something does not prevent it from happening.
The things that can benefit from worrying, are FAR, FAR fewer than the things that worry detracts from. For me, those very few times that worrying DOES make a difference, I subconsciously justify all the future times that I worry. I think that since worrying helped last time, it will help subsequent times. This is loss aversion, worrying just because of the fear of not having worried. This ruins far more events than it helps. Most things do not need a person to worry about them for them to turn out alright. Most things are out of our hands. It is a skill to find those things that are worth worrying about. On the road to being a less worrisome person, whenever I found myself worrying, I would ask myself if it was worth it. If I really thought that by worrying I would make a more positive outcome. And 90% of the time, when I caught myself doing this, I realize that it really wasn’t worth it. Again, a skill that needs cultivation, but with time, can help you become a more stress free person.